The original Ghostbusters was neither the most lucrative film released in 1984 nor the year’s biggest social breakthrough. Those titles went to Beverly Hills Cop, the first movie starring a black actor to conquer the US box office. I feel safe in saying that Ghostbusters also wasn’t the funniest movie of 1984 (the year of This Is Spinal Tap), the greatest generator of pop mythology (The Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street), the hippest (Stranger Than Paradise), the cleverest (The Company of Wolves), the most ambitious (Once Upon a Time in America), the most melodious (Purple Rain), or the one farthest out on the edge of defiant weirdness (let’s hear it for Straub-Huillet and Class Relations, their deadpan rendition of Kafka’s Amerika). Yet despite its second-place finish in any number of categories, Ghostbusters stood out. It was arguably the best-liked movie of 1984 and remains so to this day.
With the release of the not-quite-new Ghostbusters, this distinction suddenly looks like a puzzle to be solved. Thinking back, I wonder if the original belonged to its time at all.
In June 1984, when Ghostbusters came out, Jesse Jackson was shocking the political class with his run for the presidency, Walter Mondale was preparing to put a woman on a national party’s ticket for the first time, and Ronald Reagan’s flacks were describing the long economic and cultural twilight he instituted as “morning in America.” AIDS was raging, wars were raging, and the antinuclear movement was still in the streets. If you’re too young to recall those times—I’m told that a smattering of Nation readers are under 60—then I will assure you, the sense of crisis was no less acute than it is today; but the urgency, let alone its immediate motivations, did not figure even atmospherically in Ghostbusters.
You might say, at a stretch, that the film’s ghost-trapping proton beams were a goofy, more or less timely rebuke to the notion that nuclear devices were under safe, responsible control. Like other projects that Dan Aykroyd had a hand in writing, Ghostbusters also gave a one-finger salute to the ascendancy of the so-called young urban professionals, or “yuppies”—more simply, rich white kids—whose bland self-approval had recently made them the darlings of media trend-spotters. But slobs had been taking revenge on snobs long before Ghostbusters came along with its heroic band of the low-rent, rumpled, disrespectful, and dubiously credentialed. And machines of an advanced but highly unlikely design were hardly new in film or literature. As for the prospect that all hell might break loose, it was neither more nor less pertinent in 1984, as envisioned by Ghostbusters, than it had been when John the Divine prophesied on Patmos.
Blame it on the green slime if you will, but Ghostbusters slips from the grasp of those of us seeking to fix movies into historical moments. If you’re not in that group—if you’re content to dump the film’s enduring popularity into the category of “escapism,” that flimsy and capacious catchall—then there’s no problem. But more needs to be done if you want to locate the current, explicitly feminist remake in relation to the original. You might also want to face up to the likelihood that a movie about ghosts will have something to do with forces that ought to be dead but aren’t.